Chapter 2

Lady of Vines

I breathed.

My eyes were closed, but I felt the air shift around me. If this really worked, then I would have to believe everything Leo had told me. And if someone had taken my aunt, maybe I'd find clues here.

Something, a lot of somethings pressed up against me. I opened my eyes and I was caught in the brambles of a large bush.

I'm not going to panic, I told myself, that's how these situations get worse. And yet how I wanted to scream or struggle. Instead, I breathed.

And the brambles around me breathed with me. I slowed my breathing and they loosened, untying their own knotted forms and opening a way out for me. Well, that was awfully nice.

One tendril grabbed hold of my wrist and wound itself around my arm.

"Hey!" I said. I tried to pry off an edge, but a thorn stuck into the flesh of my arm. I let go and the thorn receded. Ok, this little guy wanted to stay; he could stay, long as he didn't hurt me anymore.

The vine shivered along my arm, it seemed to cozy up against my veins. It moved with my breath.

I had a tool now, and I didn't feel quite so helpless wandering into this other place. In fact I could feel the vines all around me. I went further and further, feeling each vine in the vicinity. And there, past a river and over a hill, vines crawled along the walls of a large structure. The Palace.

"Follow the sun, eh?" I muttered and looked up through the tall trees. The thick foliage was difficult to see past but sure enough, the sun was positioned in the direction I needed to go.

The underbrush was thick all about. A few futile attempts proved it to be impossible to move in. The bushes clung to my jeans and I used too much energy resisting their pull each step.

Well, I wasn't about to ignore my newfound power just because I didn't know that much about it. Leo had said I needed practice to become adept anyway. I allowed the vines to help me, moving the other foliage away and allowing me to pass. It was a matter of guiding another limb. I seemed only able to move one or two of them at a time, however. My new bracelet friend was a constant purr against my veins, connecting me to the vines in the forest. And it was quite a lush forest. I couldn't see very much of the sky for the thick leaves covering the canopy.

Vines continued to help me on my path, I moved them and twisted with them and they became extensions of me. I was their controller, their mother.

Yes, this was definitely on the strange side. I smiled.

I came to the palace. I circled about the outer walls until they opened up into the gardens. I couldn't see much from here; walls or hedges blocked off and separated the small courtyard into several paths.

Leo had said to follow the signs of the lion, but there wasn't exactly a directory or even a signpost with an arrow.

I fingered his ring, and felt the ridges of the crest of a dragon imprinted in the gold.

"Lions, lions. Even kitties maybe?" my voice felt rough after not having used it for a couple of hours and I cleared my throat.

Eight directions to choose from. Maybe I should keep following the sun?

One look up confirmed that the sun was directly over my head, no help there.

I closed my eyes and felt my friends that lived in the gardens here. I felt them squirm with happiness – their mother having come home to them. Lions, I asked, where are the lions? They didn't understand. I thought of fur, and yellow gold, and wild manes, and claws and teeth and roars. Vines don't exactly have eyes or ears, I should've realized that. They grew agitated that they couldn't help me. I stroked my vine bracelet and they calmed down.

I would just have to follow my instincts. I had until midnight to find the place.

I chose a path at random and set out through the hedges. It really was a giant maze. Except each section opened up into grand courtyards with fountains or ponds or sculptures, so that each courtyard seemed it must be the center of this labyrinth. But another would prove to be more gorgeous than the last, lined with hyacinths or orchids or flowers I had no name for.

This was getting to be impossible. I kicked at some loose rocks and then saw the symbol etched into the stone on the ground. It was the symbol of a long-necked bird, a crane or something. I looked up and there in the center of the courtyard was a hedge cut into the shape of a crane.

"Leo couldn't just tell me this little tidbit…" my voice sounded odd in the eerie silence. I shivered and looked at each of the paths. Sure enough, each one had at the base of the entrance a symbol etched into the stone. Eventually I found the one with a lion. The lion was poised on his hind legs, like on the ancient English shields.

Leo had been right about one thing, time acted strangely in this Otherworld. It seemed for a long time the sun stayed constantly right above my head, no matter how far I travelled or how much time passed. Then, suddenly, the sun dropped just below the edges of the hedges, leaving the leafy corridors in the dark shade of a late afternoon. My mind attempted to correct myself; perhaps I just hadn't noticed the sun slipping down as it usually does.

At any rate, it was getting dark quickly. The twilight caused the stones to glow like the moon, but the etched symbols were getting more difficult to decipher. And then the hedges lit up, causing me to jump onto my toes with a squeal. I froze, and peered around me, but my squeal had hopefully been lost in the maze.

Finally, the statue of a gigantic lion loomed above the line of hedges in front of me. I was almost there.

Hushed whispers dispersed into silence when I turned from the hedges into the courtyard. The statue was actually part of a fountain, water sprouting from the mouth of the great beast to flow down in a great rush into a large tiled basin I could've swam in. The lights were softer here as well, letting the light of the moon do most of the work. So I didn't see the shadows until three white faces turned toward me.

"Another lost one, eh?" whispered the older man.

"Little witchy, why don't you fly on home?" the woman leaned forward. Another younger woman teetered on her feet.

So these three were his most loyal followers. They made the picture of a quaint family. The mother immaculate, the father large and the daughter bright with a child's smile.

"I've come to meet you," I said. "Leo sent me."

I held out his signet ring; it briefly caught the moonlight.

All three gave a low shush.

"We best not be speaking his name in these part, miss," said the man. He came forward with slow steps, each foot firmly finding its purchase before continuing forward. He leaned down to touch the ring. His fingers stopped just before it, and the ring glowed. The entire courtyard lit up, and cast skeleton shadows on their faces. My vine-friend slithered on my arm.

"She's a Lady," gasped the young one. Ii could see now she was older than I thought, perhaps not more than a couple of years younger than me. But she wasn't pointing to my arm, but my eyes.

"So she is, and sent by our exiled one," said the man. "Well, then, proper introductions must be made. I am Lord Aiden of the grain." He bent forward into a bow with a flourish of his hands.

"This is Lady Marina of the Seas." She glanced at the Lord Aiden sharply, and then turned to me with a slow smile.

"And this is my daughter, the young Lady Giselle of deer." She tumbled forth, grinning, and took my hand in hers.

"Very pleased to me you!" she gushed.

"My name is Gem," I said when I got my hand back.

"Lady of Vines?" Marina drawled, her gaze drawn down to my arm.

"She hasn't claimed her title as of yet," rebuked Aiden. "And I'm not sure it would be wise for her to do so at this moment in time."

All three looked toward the left, where I presumed the palace lay in the distance.

"So this is the group that will help…him," I said, remembering at the last moment not to say Leo's name.

"Don't be fooled by our sparse numbers, Lady," Aiden said. "Between us we have much pull in the workings of the court. So, what might be the message from him?"

"Message? Oh, he just wants to know how many of you were here and…if you had any message for him." I shifted my feet. I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with their staring.

"No plan as of it, I take it." He man sighed. "Well, that would be in his character. He's lucky he found you…I'd be curious to find out who left you in the human world."

"Who's to say I'm not at least mostly human?" I snapped.

He smiled, and his chest puffed up greatly with held-back laughter. His eyes bulged and I thought he might burst his large form.

"Onto business," said the Lady Marina. Her slippery velvet voice was as controlled as her slicked-back platinum blonde hair. "We need to decide what to relay in our message."

Lord Aiden stroked his white-gold beard. His calm eyes looked up into the sky which was now sparkling with stars.

Giselle was staring at me with a placid grin on her face. I suppressed my annoyance because of the tired look in her eyes. Upon closer inspection, they all three looked weary to the point where Marina's posture wasn't quite perfect and Aiden seemed to sink down into the earth. Giselle had a white ribbon with her that she wove around her long golden hair, twirling it between her fingers. Then Aiden spoke.

"The Sorcerer gains complete control the next blue moon, witches willing. A union may be his only chance if he cannot gain power in the human world." He nodded.

"I don't know what-" I wished I had something to take notes with. I had a hard time remembering things unless I could feel the words take shape with my hands.

"You are not meant to understand all of the particulars, Lady. It will be a bit safer for you not to ask questions," Marina cut in. She added a severe smile.

"At any rate, I must be going," she said, a slight sigh in her voice. Her arms drifted out.

"Yes you leave first." Aiden nodded.

"But-" I said. This might be the only chance I had to ask all of them.

"Yes?" She turned but kept moving away, she moved like she was floating through water.

"Do you know my aunt, the witch Sephona?" I tried to keep my voice controlled.

There was a silence as all movement stopped. Even Giselle stopped her teetering.

"Your aunt is a witch?" Aiden whispered. The way he said that word twisted my stomach.

"She went missing yesterday. I don't know where-" My mouth felt dry.

"Missing or gone?" asked Marina, her head tilted to the side.

"She would've told me if she had gone somewhere." I drew in my breath.

"It may be very well that your aunt is in council with the usurper," Lord Aiden said, his palm out in a calming fashion.

"But she could be somewhere else." I sunk down onto the edge of the fountain.

"Oh yes, the other Court perhaps," he mused. "Perhaps."

"I'll find out," said Giselle. Her voice was soft, perhaps just in comparison to the deeper voices around her. "What is she like?"

"She has long dark hair like mine and dark eyes, and, well, a rather full figure." Unlike mine. I hadn't inherited her form from my mother's side of my family I supposed. The thought drew fire into my stomach. I wanted to know so much about my parents. It was worth it. Even if I couldn't succeed in helping Leo attain his throne, I might be able to discover a few things on my own here. The thought comforted me and I was able to swallow.

"Daughter, be careful," said Aiden.

"Oh, Father, you know Erydus just thinks I have a crush on him." She giggled softly. Her white dress shifted about her legs as she moved and I was envious of her carefree beauty.

"And we'd do well to keep it that way," he said, patting his daughter on her shoulder. "Be off, then, before I change my mind."

"As if he has a say in it," she whispered to me, a twinkle in her eye. She kissed her father on the cheek and dashed off into the hedges, her dress glowing in the moonlight until fern and leaves blocked my view of her.

"Goodnight," Marina said before slinking away in a separate direction.

Aiden still had his eyes on me. He waited a few moments, and then said:

"You'd do well to take the paths marked with a crane, that's the closest courtyard to one of the exits. Do you remember what you are to tell Leo?"

I repeated the message verbatim, surprising myself. Well, I suppose when things are more important one's memory improves in that regard.

"You'd do well not to involve yourself in this too much, Lady. You're of mixed blood and that will hurt you should you try to join the court." He shifted, drawing closer to me so that his mouth whispered at my ear, the breath heavy against my skin. "And you may discard any dream of becoming queen."

I nearly fell over backwards. I caught myself on the side of my foot, my weight bending my ankle against the stone.

"I didn't-" I protested, I honestly hadn't even thought of that possibility.

The man seemed to see something in my wide-eyed gaze because he stepped back.

"Very well, then. I wish you safe passage back to the rightful one." And with a courteous nod he was gone between the hedges.

I stood in the moonlight, ignoring the pain in my foot.

So the old man had plans for his daughter to be queen then. Between her flirtation with Erydus and the secret alliance with Leo in case he managed to come back, well she might have a chance either way. This was the way these people thought, and I had to think like them as well. My only comfort was that if things got too crazy here, I could always go home and forget about it all. But suddenly I wasn't so sure. I certainly couldn't go home forever without my aunt, and something else…I felt up to the challenge.

Lord Aiden would have no idea that it was only his suggestion that opened up a new possible goal for me. No, I didn't think I would want to be queen of the fairyworld, I was not part of this world yet. But this information was something important, I could feel it. The fact that Aiden attempted to instill some fear into me means that he thought me enough of a threat to try to eliminate.

I had a certain power, or the possibility of it, or at least the possibility of being so startling as to cause the upheaval of a whole court system. If I was up to this task, I could…

Accomplish what? What did I want? If I found my father or the place he had been from, would I find home? Or would home be only with my aunt?

I needed to move, I needed to not think too much just yet. There was still too much I didn't know.

I found the symbol of the crane and took that path down the windy edge of the hedges. The sky was already lightening in the pre-dawn, though I was certain not that much time had passed. Surely that meeting had not taken a whole night?

Parted of me wanted to run into there and find my aunt. But it would be much safer to leave this up to Giselle. I didn't want anyone who was on the side of the usurper Erydus to find Leo's signet ring on me.

When I reached the edge of the gardens, where the hedges opened up into a meadow, a break in the long expanse of forest that awaited me, I stopped. I had forgotten to ask how or when Giselle would find me. And if my aunt was in that palace then I may as well not venture further away from her. But to stay out in the open was probably not the brightest idea either. I would go as quickly as I could to deliver the message back to Leo, then perhaps I could meet the odd trio again in the gardens.

I set out across the meadow. The morning dew collected quickly on my jeans and soaked them from the knees down. Just before the sun had risen I entered the cover of the trees.

Immediately I bumped into something solid, but softer than a tree. I expelled my breath and fell back onto my right foot. I felt a sharp pain jut up through my lower leg. If I hadn't sprained my ankle before, now I definitely had.

Before I could fall back completely, the dark figure was beside, arms across my back, pulling me upright. I could just make out the shadows of his face in the dark hood.

"There's no time before the sun rises, and they're following you, take my hand," he said, the glow in his eyes flashing from deep within his hood.

AN: I made a few changes to the first chapter as well, thank you to elf-eyes!